Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Florida Farmworkers and Immigration

By Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli

The Farmworker Association of Florida is rooted in an immigrant community, although we are not all immigrants. A recent report compiled by Farmworker Justice noted that 31 percent of the US farmwork labor force consists of US citizens, while 21 percent are lawful permanent residents of the US. Farmworkers who migrate to the US do so for a variety of reasons that range from economic to security reasons. We also often forget how intricately entwined are countries and economies as a result of the expansion of global markets, geopolitics, and geographic distance, as well as our own history's painful relation with agricultural labor. Although the Farmworker Association of Florida is an organization that made up of Hispanic, Haitian, and African American farmworkers and their families, in this post I would like to bring to the reader's attention a little bit of the recent history that has created the conditions for an immigrant-reliant agricultural system in the United States along with conditions that have brought brought an immigrant farm workforce to Florida.

Imported Slave Labor
Beginning with the colonization of this continent, Europeans settling in what is now the US tried to tap into the labor required to grow the fruits and vegetables needed for the colonies' economic survival. Most everyone in the world knows the role that the chattel slavery had on the economic growth of the colonies and then independent United States, forcefully importing vast amounts of labor from the African continent and then through the reproduction of that population in the US. Given the scope and breadth of the enslavement of African peoples in America, little attention is sometimes paid to the attempts at enslaving the Native-American population that preceded that of African and African-Americans. Unfortunately for the colonists, Native-Americans knew the land too well, and found escape more feasible. African-Americans were new to the land and slavery was yet to take the brutal form it did in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Without the labor of those African-American people, the US would not have been able to take its agricultural production as it did, planting rice for export, as well as cotton and indigo which in turned fueled the textile industry.

National Endowment for the Humanities (

The point I wish to make here, is that since its inception, as a colonial enterprise, the US has promoted the idea that agricultural work is stoop labor not fitting to its citizens, thence the need to either import labor or find a local marginal workforce willing to do the work. As attitudes about citizenship and race have changed in the US, the agricultural workforce has also changed. Through most of our history, farmworkers were African-Americans. In the Twentieth Century we began to see a slight shift towards importing farm labor from south of the border and across the pacific. As time passes, those workers then begin feeling the need to stand up and speak out. They demand better treatment and protections. African-Americans even demanded an end to slavery. Radicals!

on July 26, the Trump Administration introduced a series of proposed changes to the H-2A agricultural guest worker program, which in effect expands it and shifts the burden on cost to the workers and decreases accountability for protections for growers. This approach continues the patterns of importing labor ignoring the fact that there is already a ready labor force in the United States that is already experienced and acclimatized to local working conditions. For example, in Florida, summer temperatures can climb to the 90°s F with a heat index reaching into the 100° F. Efforts to import a farmworking labor force continue to place farmworkers in the longstanding tradition of seeing agricultural work as stoop labor that is beneath the dignity of its citizens. In other words, farm work is not work that American workers do. Not coincidentally, workers were imported from Africa, Asia, and Latin America at different times in history, only to give that work to citizens who were not considered full citizens (Salas 2015). These new proposed changes also reduces accountability for growers by allowing several employers to hire one worker who can them take turns working at their different farms. In this situation, when a worker suffers from any of the excesses associated with farm work, such as heat-related illness or pesticide exposure it will be harder to ascertain which farm the worker was on when he became ill and leaves little room for consideration of the role that compounded effect of working on three different farms would have on workers.

As in the case of enslaved African-Americans, their presence as a labor force is only part of the story that can only be understood in the context of historical processes taking shape over decades and centuries. Often, they lie outside the control of anyone individual, but they do stem from the accrued consequences of an economic system that in its quest for profit slowly erodes social and economic checks on a population's well-being and commodifies their labor at the expense of their humanity.

Let's skip the first two hundred years of American labor history. We can discuss some of those processes in a later post. Now I want to focus exclusively in the current farmworking population of Florida, made up mostly of immigrant worker or their descendants from Mexico, Central America, and Haiti.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was sold to American people as an opportunity to sell American goods abroad. So was it sold to the Mexican business class. Most consumers saw the opportunity to buy imported goods at a more modest price. Before NAFTA, electronic equipment was two to three times higher than in the US. Most people looked forward to a new era for consumers and job opportunities. Not everyone bought it, though. The Tzotzil and Tzetzal people of Chiapas were not fooled, and organized an armed movement as the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) on the same day NAFTA went into effect, January 1, 1994. Embedded in the fine print was the provision that allowed the US to export corn to Mexico, dumping its surplus into a saturated market. The price of corn plummeted and small growers were no longer able to grow corn. So it came to be that the country that had domesticated Zea maize had to import it.

With gratitude to

As small growers were no longer able to sell thee corn they grew, they turned to the other meager economic opportunities that were becoming available. NAFTA brought a flow of US maquiladoras along the US-Mexico border. Those jobs filled quickly and easily not only with machine operators but also professionals in design, marketing, and business administration. NAFTA for its part had achieved its first goal, to create an available and vulnerable work force. Those small growers who were no longer able to grow their own corn still had a skill not many people had. They knew how to work the land, and they could do it quickly. The guest worker program for agricultural workers often referred to as H-2A for the visa number with which workers enter the US, allowed some of them to offer the last thing they could offer, the fruit of their labor. Others were not so lucky, and the Bracero program had ended in the 1960s. They could stay home and enter the informal economy, which can take many forms, but the most prominent is of course, the drug trade, fueled in large part by consumption in the US. The ones who did decide to migrate to the US, did so so they could feed their families with an honest job.

US Invasions of Haiti
The most recent wave of Haitian immigrants came as a result of the devastating earthquake that shook the country in 2010. Many Haitians who could fled the country in the face the infrastructural collapse accompanied by the health hazards that broke out. At the time, the US granted those Haitian immigrants Temporary Protection Status (TPS). However, the shared history of the US and Haiti runs deeper than that.

At the time that Haiti began its struggle for independence, two other nations of the world were likewise struggling to break off the yoke of oppression. One of them was the United States, the other one was France. Neither of the three occurred in a vacuum, and political developments in all three were influenced by events in the other two. At the same time, all three shaped future revolutions and independence movements in Latin America. Haiti's fight for independence began as a slave revolt against the French colonial occupation of the western end of the island in Saint Domingue in 1790. Out of that revolt the former slave Touissant L'Overture emerged as an astute political and military leader who was able to stave off English and Spanish invasions of the French side of the island while maneuvering France's attempts to reestablish slavery on the island. Although France invaded Saint Domingue and Touissant was finally captured and sent to a French prison in 1803, his military corp was able to fight on and secure independence for Haiti in November of that same year.

As Haiti became the first truly successful slave revolt, the rest of the Americas looked in horror to the possibility of a similar fate befalling their colonies. After passage of the Bourbon Reform Laws that relaxed some of the economic and political control the Spanish Crown held over its colonies, it ultimately became even more difficult for Spain to hold on to its colonies. However, both the United States with its slave-based economy and the Spanish colonies saw with horror Haitian independence as a future that had to be avoided at all cost in their own countries. The revulsion and disdain with which European descendants generally saw in Haiti and its citizens the triumph of a black republic, dictated how the country would be treated by its neighbors through the remainder of the 19th and 20th centuries.

US Forces in Haiti in 1919 (US National Archives)

While most of the world was embroiled in World War I, the US was busy trying to stay out of what many Americans considered to be a European problem. At the same time, throughout the Americas, the US was actively engaging in gunboat diplomacy. The US had recently successfully dethroned Spain as the colonial power of the Caribbean and acquired from the latter control over Puerto Rico and Cuba, as well as the Philippines. More recently the US had orchestrated a successful independence revolt in Panama for its independence from Colombia, gaining a foothold in the Isthmus of Panama where a canal could be built. In 1915, amid corruption and unrest maligning the Caribbean nation and the assassination of President Vilbrum Guillame Sam, US President Woodrow Wilson ordered troop mobilization to quell the unrest and stabilize the country. Unfortunately for Haiti, the US remained as an occupying force in Haiti until 1935. While the occupation was disguised as a humanitarian endeavor, US policy implementation was aimed at securing access of the nation's resources and market to US interests.

Plagued by corruption and unrest, in 1991, the democratically elected Jean Bertrand Aristide was ousted and pushed into exile by Haiti's military. With the backing of the US, Aristide returned in 1994 and again the US occupied the nation until 1997. Aristide was again deposed and exiled in 2004 to South Africa. The role of the US in both coups is disputed by Aristide and some historians claim that the US was directly involved in his ousting from Haitian politics. The US occupation of Haiti hindered the economic development of the nation by establishing a colonial relationship between the US and Haiti in which resources were extracted and Haitian's were expected to consume American goods imported to the island. When natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake strike small impoverished nations, its residents have no economic alternatives but to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Central American Destabilization
A host of small nations nestle in the waist of the continent most people in the western Hemisphere consider a single continent, America. This group of Central American nations have likewise been at the receiving end of U.S. meddling in local affairs and politics. As in the case of Mexico, Haiti, and the rest of Latin America, the U.S. has since its inception considered the rest of the continent its own back yard. The history of US intervention in the region is varied and complex. It also speaks further to the muscle with which the US has carried diplomacy. That relationship has also created a two way avenue for the inflow of American investment and the outflow of Central American resources and opportunities. Reduced opportunities at home in turn help create a climate ripe for exodus and a pipeline for the exit of any nation's most valuable resource, its people and culture. Together they create a labor and brain drain.

From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, the U.S. was held interests in the region in the form of various investments primarily with corporations like the United Fruit Company, as well as interest in building a canal in the Panama Isthmus. Panama in the late 19th century was a province of Colombia. The United States fostered an insurgent rebellion for the independence of Panama with the intent of building a canal on the isthmus. Both endeavors were successful and in 1903 Panama declared its independence from Colombia. The US offered Panama official recognition, funding, and asked in return for the right to build the canal, which was completed in 1914. As many people know, the US remained in possession of the canal until the year 1999 when a treaty signed by Presidents Jimmy Carter of the US and Panamanian President Omar Torrijos in 1977. However, the relationship between the two nations over that century was not an easy one. Occupation of the Canal Zone by the US in effect divided Panama geographically. The US continued to live by its segregation rules during its occupation of the canal, and Americans from the Canal Zone in general treated Panamanians as colonial subjects whom they employed for a variety of services but did did not treat as equals. Even though the US withdrew from the canal in 1999, through its long occupation it built ties with Panama that continued to link the two countries as individuals who had worked in the canal zone looked opportunities to work in the US. While Panamanians do not make a large percentage of US or Florida farmworking population, this case is emblematic of how US imperialism in the region and its relation to a local labor force has favored immigration to the US. 

Another case in point is the small country of El Salvador. As in much of Central America, Salvadoran workers first began participating in the US economy when in the 19th century. Later, in the 1940s, Salvadorans filled labor shortages working in American shipyards and textile factories. While most of those Salvadorans left the US and went back to El Salvador at the end of the war, during their work stint in the US they built the social networks on which later migrations from El Salvador would build their communities in the 1970s and 1980s. It was during that time that we saw the most continued and sustained immigration to the United States from Central America. The roots of that migration go beyond economic push and pull factors, but in US foreign policy that had real life consequences for people in some of the small countries of the region. 

After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. focus in Central America was to keep communism out. Communism is often used as a catch-all phrase to describe a range of sociopolitical models that include socialism, social democracy, true communism, where the state owns and controls all the means of production. Ideologically, any of those models represents a threat to the capitalist economic model. True be told, however, socialism can take many forms in which the state intervenes and provides benefits for certain segments of the population. Recent thought in the US has argued that the US operates in a corporate socialist economy, whereby the state helps with kickbacks and subsidies large corporations. US intervention in Central America aimed to prevent forms of government that would shift the flow of state benefits from going to corporations to going to individual citizens. Under that premise, the US justified intervention in small Central American countries. Especially violent was US intervention in the three nations of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.

Between 1980 and 1992 various leftist organizations inspired by the 1950s and 1960s insurgencies of Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, sought to take over the government of El Salvador. Chief among these organizations was the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). While violence escalated on both sides between the state and the FMLN, the government of El Salvador unable to effectively fight the FMLN received help from the United States in the form of money, training, and military support. The Reagan Administration recommended a war of attrition against the rebel forces, meaning that the government should fight low key battles to tire the rebels out. Over the next 12 years, as the war prolonged and neither rebels nor government were able to fully control the national territory, many Salvadorans left their country seeking refuge in the United States. By some estimates, as many as 25 percent of Salvadorans relocated to the United States. 

While other forms of immigration to the US from throughout the Americas has taken place throughout the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, much of this migration has resulted from US intervention in the region. Some of this intervention has been more forceful than others as in the case of El Salvador or the occupation of Haiti. However, intervention can also take a more covert form, supporting opposition groups for the sake of US business interests in certain countries as was the case in Panama in order to build the Panama Canal. A more veiled form of intervention exercised since the late 19th and beginning of 20th centuries is in the form of economic development. Economic development projects introduced into Latin America have brought with them an upsurge in wealth that unfortunately does not move through the socioeconomic hierarchy, but stays in a few hands at the top of that system, At the bottom end of that spectrum, families making low wages but relying on small family plots to sustain them with that additional income often through crop dumping practices that favor US growers not only lose their livelihood, but become dispossessed. It is those conditions that drive workers from other countries to throw their lot with the risks of migration and make an attempt at a better living elsewhere.

Ultimately those conditions create a vulnerable labor pool of workers who are willing to take on the hard toil of agricultural work. Sometimes that willingness comes from a family tradition of working the land and there is real value in knowing and working the land. That knowledge holds the keys to a sustainable future where traditional agricultural practices may open new avenues of food procurement. However, the extractive nature of our food system requires a more mechanized form of industrial food production and it is often workers who are already vulnerable, who may have already taken a dangerous journey in search of work that will allow them to offer their families more, who are willing to take on that kind of work. Today's immigrant farmworkers follow a long line of workers forced by different circumstances into the industrial agricultural system that created this state. They follow enslaved Africans who would themselves had to go through a more grueling and forced migration experience. Nonetheless, their experience and that of other immigrant groups who have had to toil the US agricultural fields, is one of dependence on vulnerable, imported labor, doing the work and creating the wealth that has given this country the political dominance it achieved at the height of the 20th century. 

The Farmworker Association of Florida is a grassroots organization working everyday on issues of labor, environmental, and health justice for Florida's farmworking population. If you can  please, consider making a donation through our GoFundMe page. Thank you!

Further Reading:

Feeser, Andrea. Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life. University of Georgia Press, Athens (2013).

Green, Amelia Hoover. The Commander's Dilemma. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, (2018).

Maurer, Noel. The Empire Trap: The Rise and Fall of US Intervention to Protect American Property Overseas, 1893-2013. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ (2013).

Minkoff-Zern, Laura-Anne. Knowing "Good Food": Immigrant Knowledge and the Racial Politics of Farmworker Food Insecurity. Antipode 46, 5 (2012).

Patel, Raj, and Jim Goodman. The Long New Deal. The Journal of Peasant Studies. 47, 3:431-463 (2020).

Rodriguez, Ana Patricia. Dividing the Isthmus: Central American Transnational Histories, Literatures, and Cultures. University of Texas Press, Austin (2009).

Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934, Rutgers University Press, New York, (1995).

Sommers, Jeffrey W. The US Power Elite and the Political Economy of Haiti's Occupation: Investment, Race, and World Order. The Journal of Haitian Studies 21, 2:46-67 (2015).

Spring, Ursula Oswald. Environmentally Forced Migratonn in Rural Areas: Security Risks and THreats in Mexico. In Climate Change, Human Security, and Violent Conflict: Challenges for Societal Stability, edited by Jürgen Scheffran, Michale Brzoska, Hans Günter Brauch, Peter Michael Link, and Janpeter Schilling, pp. 315-350. Springer, New York (2012),

Wilson, Thomas D. The Ashley Cooper Plan: The Founding of Carolina and the Origins of Southern Political Culture. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill (2016).

Florida Farmworkers and Immigration

By Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli The Farmworker Association of Florida is rooted in an immigrant community, although we are not all immigrants....